Friday, 28 October 2011

Exploring Burma

Wednesday 26th October 2011

The aircraft to Yangon was a Thai A330 with 2+2+2 seating in business class. We boarded on time and then sat at the gate for almost an hour with engines stopped. I didn't find out why - probably Air Traffic Control delays. Eventually we taxied to the queue of departing aircraft and took off about the time we should have arrived in Yangon. They served a reasonable meal on the 1 hour flight. We landed and taxied to the International Terminal where the airbridge was promptly attached. After a few minutes walk, I had an early position in the immigration queue for 'Foreigners' and, after the usual amount of checking of passport and visa, I was admitted by the smiling young immigration officer. There was the usual huddle of passengers around the carousel in the baggage hall but I only had to wait a minute or two before my bag appeared. In the arrival hall, I easily found my guide as his board displayed the tour company (Sun Bird), the booking agents (Wexas) and my own name. Outside the terminal, we were picked up by the car for the transfer to my hotel. It was already pitch dark and most roads are not well-lit so there wasn't much to see on the 30 minute journey.

There was the usual warm welcome at the Strand Hotel. My air ticket for the next day's flight to Bagan was waiting so my guide checked the details and arranged to pick me up at 4.45 a.m. the following day. I'm on Asian Wings Airways AWM-891 due to leave Yangon for Nyaung U (Bagan), Mandalay and Heho. I arranged a wake-up call for 4.00 a.m. and a simple breakfast in my room for 4.15 a.m. before retiring to the comfort of room 103.

My computer attached to the hotel's Wi-Fi without difficulty but I was surprised to receive the following screen:-

"Dear Valued Customers,

On 17 October 2011, Due to the failure of SEA-ME-WE 3 submarine fiber optic cable, the Internet connection was unstable. It is being fixed by concerned personnel and during this period, the Internet connection may be significantly slow and possibly offline sometimes. We will keep you informed accordingly and we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience caused.
With regards,

Yatanarpon Teleport"

The hotel staff confirmed that the internet was very slow and suggested I might do better on the machine in their business centre. Having tried that with very limited success, I eventually gave up on the internet and went to bed.

There are pictures of the Strand Hotel here.

Thursday 27th October 2011

I was picked up at 4.45 a.m. as arranged and we arrived at the domestic terminal about 5.15 a.m. to catch Asian Wings Airways flight AWM-891. This is a new airline which started up in January this year, operating a couple of ATR-600 turbo-props. Check-in was painless and after waiting in the departure hall, I was surprised when the flight was called at about twenty to six. We sat in the bus for a while and then drove 100 yards across the tarmac to the waiting aircraft.

Boarding the Asian Wings flight at Yangon Domestic Terminal.

We were airborne just on 6.0 a.m. The cabin crew of a steward and stewardess served a simple meal and we landed at Nyaung U (the airport for Bagan area) around 7.15 a.m.

I easily found my guide Kyaw (pronounced 'chore') and, having located my luggage and the car with driver, we were soon on the way. I explained that I'd seen the major temples of Bagan but I was keen to see some of the smaller, quieter locations. We spent a wonderful couple of hours on dirt roads looking at minor temples and ruins. Amazingly, the souvenir sellers have some sort of radar which directs them to a tourist, even when on the 'road less travelled'. One girl with good English insisted she'd seen me the year before and I decided she was right.

The restored features of a once-large monastery.

My pictures of this exploration are here.

After these exertions in the hot sun, we took the hot, sweet tea that the Burmese love at a typical tea shop. The tea is made with condensed milk, as they also take it in India. Green tea is also available. I had one green tea and two cups of sweet tea whilst Kyaw contacted the Doctor on 'Road to Mandalay' by mobile phone to make arrangements for our meeting on Saturday morning. Then we set off for Mount Popa, pausing at Bagan railway station for me to check it out. The service is sparse so, as expected, we didn't see a train but I was able to take photographs of the infrastructure before we continued on the rather rough road to Mount Popa.

There had been heavy rain recently and, at a number of places, short-lived watercourses had flooded across the road. Although the watercourses had thoroughly dried-out again, the sand brought down by the water had been thickly deposited across the road. In addition, the water had damaged the tarmac road surface. We passed various road-mending gangs on our way to Mount Popa. Large heaps of crushed stone had been dumped at the roadside, together with drums of bitumen. A large, yellow road roller was usually in attendance for the final stage. But all the earlier stages of the work preparing the road bed and laying the roadstone was carried out manually, with large gangs of mainly women. I spotted one firepit where the bitumen was being heated ready for laying. A pit had been dug in the verge, a few feet long and a couple of feet wide. This had been filled with brushwood and set alight. Three drums of bitumen had been placed side-by-side across the pit and flames surrounded the drums.

Taung Kalat viewed from Mount Popa.

The flat plain gave way to hills and the road we were on twisted and turned as it climbed through the wooded landscape to arrive at the village at the foot of the astonishing column of rock topped with temples called Taung Kalat. The rock column sprouts from one side of the substantial extinct volcano of Mount Popa. The village was even more chaotic than the last time I'd visited because a section of the village street was closed for re-surfacing. Kyaw and I set off up the 777 steps (I didn't count them) to the temples at the summit. It was hot but conditions were better than on my last ascent when heavy rain had made the steps very slippery. We spent some time checking the views from the top before coming down. There were very few visitors and the souvenir sellers seemed preoccupied with taking lunch. We passed a group of around six Germans making there way up - they'd travelled from Yangon on the aircraft I'd been on.

My pictures of Taung Kalat on this trip are here.

We located our car and driver and our car made its winding way up the mountain to Mount Popa Resort. I was expected and was quickly conducted to just the villa I'd imagined - semi-detached, wood and stone construction with a wooden shingled roof. The building was built on piles on the wooded hillside, with a spacious verandah looking across to the fairy-tale looking temples of Taung Kalat we'd just visited. The one wall of the bedroom was completely glazed so the view from inside was almost as good. I was absolutely charmed by the spot.

The splendid accommodation at Mount Popa Resort.

Feeling a little peckish, I ordered 'Fish and Chip' and a coke from room service which I enjoyed on the verandah. Afterwards, I looked at the infinity swimming pool (which also has views of the temple rock) but decided to try the horse riding first. As I expected, this was a little sedate but still marvellous fun. The horse was led through a forest road to the Deer Park, where I dismounted and was invited to look out for deer. We did spot a couple of deer but they remained a little distance away, suspiciously watching us and ignoring the enticing calls of the gamekeeper.

Jan, on the way back from the Deer Park.

On my return, I had a quick dip in the pool then relaxed a little before going to the dining room for a simple evening meal. I took my meal outside on the restaurant verandah which, of course, had a splendid view of Taung Kalat, now twinkling with electric lights in the warm evening air.

My pictures around Mount Popa Resort are here.